The Age Of Reason

By Thomas Paine, 1794, 1795

Review is copyright 2016 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2016.01.19

Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: The Age Of Reason: Being An Investigation Of True And Fabulous Theology
Author: Thomas Paine
Year: 1794, 1795
Publisher: Forgotten Books
ISBN 978-1605060309 (U.S.)
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The Age Of Reason — Thomas Paine’s explanations for his deistic beliefs — was originally published in three parts, published as a complete work as early as 1818. In Britain, more than one publisher was jailed for printing Paine’s book. In the U.S., there were such fears of “unpleasant and even violent reprisals” that none other than Thomas Jefferson convinced Paine in 1802 to postpone publishing the third part, delaying its publication for five years.

In Part I, Paine lays out his reasoning for disbelieving in the whole of Christianity (he also mentions Judaism and Islam), but also his reasons for insisting there still is a God (“the first cause, the cause of all things”). But in addition to laying out reasons or building arguments, he took on a ridiculing tone and, unlike his forebears, used common (“vulgar”) language — his intended audience was not other scholars, but the literate common man.

Part II includes a book-by-book disproving of the Bible, using almost entirely internal evidence. One of his main focuses is showing that we don’t know who wrote each book, and then notes that “anonymous” authorship carries little authority. He goes on to list internal contradictions, mistakes, and complains that the character of the described god (YHWH) is despicable.

In my edition, Part III was separated, so I have written separate reviews: Essay On Dream, Biblical Blasphemy, and Examination Of The Prophecies.

What I Liked Least About It

As often happens with older works, what I liked least about this book cannot be blamed on the author. It is the change of our language, which renders some meanings difficult to discern and others nearly impossible for the modern reader. As an example, take the word “fabulous”, which Paine uses more than once to describe Christian doctrine. To me, the first definition that pops into my head is “amazingly good, wonderful”, whereas studying the context makes it clear that Paine uses it in an older sense: “having no basis in reality, mythical”.
“The suspicion that the theory of what is called the Christian church is fabulous is becoming very extensive in all countries...”
It is perhaps ironic that Paine himself complains of languages in this very book: “Human language is local and changeable, and is therefore incapable of being used as the means of unchangeable and universal information.”

Of what Paine actually wrote, I think what I enjoyed least was his hypocrisy in failing to apply the same reason to his own beliefs that he applied to the doctrines and assertions of the most common religions of his day. He expertly dismisses false and contradictory tales, but when it comes to his own beliefs — that Creation (the universe) is proof of God’s existence as well as being God’s revelation to mankind — he accepts it at face value and doesn’t question it. He “reasons” that since nothing could “make itself”, then something must have made everything, and this somehow proves that the “first cause [is] eternally existing... and this first cause, man calls God.” (This is known as the cosmological argument.)

In Paine’s defense, he lived and wrote just prior to a time of great scientific discovery, and did not have the advantage that we do today of vast piles of information about the age of the Earth and Universe, the way natural forces operate, the evolution of species, and other scientific discoveries that have given rise to completely godless theories of the universe’s beginning. Still, he could have asked himself the question: why does the existence of things mean there was a Creator God?

What I Liked Most About It

What I appreciated most about this book, in its historical context, was the courage Paine showed to write it all, knowingly risking imprisonment and a backlash from the religious establishment. As it was, his friends deserted him, he was barred from voting when he returned to the U.S., and he wasn’t allowed to be buried in the cemetery of his choice — instead his bones found temporary rest under a walnut tree on a private farm (they were eventually dug up and lost to history).

Today, mostly because of revolutionaries like Paine and his contemporaries, we can write the exact words he did and fear nothing except haughty-yet-pitying looks from our fundamentalist neighbors. Today, to fear the kind of reprisals he must have expected, one must live in one of the few dozen countries remaining where freedom of thought is not yet tolerated, such as Saudi Arabia, where people like Raif Badawi are sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for speaking his mind on the topics of religion and government.

As for the writing itself, once I got past the obvious differences in language over the past 200 years, I enjoyed the brief, sharp manner with which Paine cuts through the silliness that some religions have passed off as doctrines of truth. For example, referring to various holy books that are thought of as God’s primary method of speaking to all of humanity:
“Revelation when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man. No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.”


I’m glad I finally read this book. Though I’ve known since my school days that several men instrumental in the American Revolution were deists rather than Christians, I never realized until recently that several of them wrote confidently about their lack of adherence to traditional doctrines.

As always, when reading books like this now, I wonder what my reaction would have been if I had read such a book in my high school days, or shortly thereafter. Would it have saved me 25 years of struggle and wondering, or would I have found a way to rationalize away its ideas?

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